In the 1940s, RKO Studios cranked out an amazing number of cheap, cheap movies. Those low budget films were on an almost impossible completion schedule. RKO seemed to start all new, untried producers the same way.
The problem for those young, no-name filmmakers was simple:
The high pressure, cheap, fast start-up regimen was usually a permanent career condition. Permanent.
In 1942, Val Lewton was put in charge of cheap, fast, scary, monster type films for the studio, and he wanted to break out. He was determined to find some way to produce a top quality film that still met the production company’s harsh conditions.
It seemed beyond the reach of any ordinary mortal. The script was tried and true, which is to say tired and cliche ridden. Cat People was about a woman who begins to suspect she has been turning into a panther-like creature at night.
Years later, a film about a film producer, based partly on Val Lewton, recreated a version of that experience. A wardrobe manager shows the young producer one old, frayed, ill-fitting cat costume after another. Each one looks like a clipped down bugs bunny outfit that has been dyed black.
They’ll be fine, the wardrobe guy assures him. The costumes have been in hundreds of productions and nobody has complained.
The young producer is depressed by the prospect of creative failure until he comes up with a wonderful solution. There will be no cat costuming at all.
Val Lewton’s reasoning did indeed seem to be that the best portrayal, which is to say the most frightening portrayal, of the feline menace would not be a scary appearance. The horror would rely on the most frightening thing imaginable – the human imagination itself.
The cat woman, as a cat, would never see the screen. Sound, shadow, and the imagination of the audience would provide all the scare any movie goer could ever want to feel. The title role was always played a little off-screen.
A crucial scene has the cat woman follow an unsuspecting young lady on a lonely street. That scene, the single scene that made Val Lewton famous, the scene that is still played in every college class on filmmaking, took place largely in the mind of each member of the audience.
A young woman walks at night on the sidewalk next to an empty street. She is followed. We see her pursuer, another young woman. We hear both sets of footsteps. The victim walks past the camera, the camera is still as the second woman also walks onscreen and off. Both sets of footsteps speed up.
Another screenshot as the victim walks quickly through the scene. We expect to see the pursuer, but the camera shows… an empty sidewalk. One set of footsteps is suddenly silent. The victim turns, sees nothing.
She walks fast, then faster, then goes to a near run. She glances behind her, there is no-one in sight. She stops, leans against a lamppost.
We hear a low growl that grows in volume, then becomes a loud hiss.
Which turns out to be the air brake of a bus that suddenly fills the screen. The door opens. The woman glances toward the swaying branches of a nearby tree.
“C’mon, Sister,” says the bus driver. “You ridin’ with me or ain’t ya?”
Countless variations of the technique have been used over the years. An off-screen menace turns out to be innocuous. Sometimes it is an alarming noise that turns out to be a cat. Or a hand that reaches from behind to grasp the shoulder of the target, but turns out to be a friend. “Hi, what brings you here?”
In every case, you expect the scary menace to attack, from the shadows or from around the next corner, and you are startled instead to get sudden harmlessness.
A generic name has evolved for the technique of horrible fright about something just out of view that turns out to be nothing. It is called the Lewton Bus. Film students learn about it in university courses.
The Lewton Bus carried Val Lewton through a remarkably creative career. If he had been given more workable budgets and studio support, he might have become a legend in the public mind, not simply revered in college classrooms and Hollywood studios. In those studios, he also became known for his gentle, and often generous, manner in dealing with actors and crew members.
Boris Karloff credited Lewton with saving him from career failure and personal devastation. Karloff had been narrowly typecast, used by studio moguls only for a seemingly endless series of the same role: Frankenstein’s monster. After a while, the monster became so familiar, audiences were no longer even marginally startled. They began to go on to greener, which is to say scarier, pastures.
Boris Karloff’s public was reduced to the dregs, those easily startled by the same old tired plots and the same old clunky giant monster. His films were quick and forgotten, shown to weak minded, easily thrilled moviegoers who would tolerate almost anything on screen. They were loyal, but they were not many.
Karloff was in despair when he was forced to appear with the familiar stitched together humanoid in House of Frankenstein, along with Wolf Man, Count Dracula, and even a hunchback. He derisively referred to it as a “monster clambake.”
After that disaster, they pushed his once-frightening character into a comedy in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. He found himself tightly typecast on a downward, slippery slope toward the abyss of acting oblivion. He could find no way to avoid that fall from the tall tall cliff until he met Val Lewton.
Lewton worked with him closely. All their pictures together were horror films, but they involved new characters and more creative approaches to fright than the clumsy stomping and heavy makeup that went into the film distortions of what had once been Mary Shelley’s tragic creation. Boris Karloff’s career took off again.
Lewton’s Bus, the technique of scaring the imaginative with hints of danger that turn out to be nothing, reminds me of the generation-long vendetta that so many dedicated enemies have waged against the Clinton family.
A recent email scandal came down to three classified messages, two of which turned out out to have been forwarded copies that had already been sent, one of which was a routine department-wide notification from Secretary Clinton herself. The third message was a note of congratulations to Secretary Clinton from the US Ambassador to Brazil. Some top secrets!
The Benghazi investigation turned up nothing, then turned into another investigation that turned up nothing, but which turned into another investigation that turned into an eleven hour hearing that embarrassed a room full of Republican members of Congress, allowed Hillary Clinton to show a Presidential appearance to America and the world, and which turned up nothing.
Clinton Foundation conflicts of interest turned up no conflict, unless you count old friends who wanted to help save hundreds of thousands of lives while still maintaining a friendship.
Investigations of Secretary Clinton form a series that go back to that distant time when many adult Americans were not alive, and when the rest of us were young.
A huge Republican investigation into Christmas cards turned out to be nothing other than … you know … Christmas cards.
When Hillary first became First Lady, she heard about a long brewing scandal. White House travel employees had taken, but could not account for, large amounts of taxpayer funds. One employee came close to prison time on the charge of outright theft. After an almost comical audit by an independent accounting firm, a lot of sticky folks lost their jobs over the sloppy handling of large amounts of taxpayer money.
One of the new people hired to replace those who had been fired discovered she was a third cousin, having an ancestor in common with the Clintons. So the Republican Congress accused Hillary Clinton of ruthlessly firing unsuspecting, loyal, longtime federal employees, just so she could have relatives hired in their place. The conservative Congress launched a long, long investigation. Turned out to be about nothing.
A land deal resulted in another investigation. The Clintons had lost a lot of money, didn’t make a dime. But that didn’t stop the accusations. The land deal turned out to be nothing.
Bill Clinton had an affair. He was impeached, but Hillary was accused of being responsible, or of being partly responsible, or of enabling, or of just not liking the young lady with whom her husband had been involved. Or something. Nothing turned out to have the right combination of being both plausible and wrong.
Each investigation has been a variation of the same old plot. We see her walking down the dark street. We know, we can tell because we can see the shadows and hear the footsteps, that danger is lurking. And the attack is about to begin. We hear the growl and the hiss. We tense. Then the noise turns out to be nothing but a bus pulling up.
We are relieved. There was no menace, no cat woman.
But some in the American audience, white knuckles holding tight to their seats, are determined to be frightened. The invisible feline monster is on the prowl. If the panther does turn out to be only a bus complete with driver, the danger might be the clunky monster the rest of us find sort of humorous, appearing as it does in a drive-in comedy. We have seen this movie until our eyeballs hurt, and the harmless, innocent ending is always the same.
The most dedicated of fright night fans believe, as they have to believe, the bus is a diversion. The monster is real.
Otherwise the price they paid for admission, their attendance itself, is money and time wasted.
But the growl and hissing … is just an air brake.
“C’mon, Sister. You ridin’ with me or ain’t ya?”
Hillary boards the bus, and continues out of the scene. The timid, frightened accusers are all that can be seen on the dark and lonely street, nervously looking to the trees, whispering to each other, convinced the phantom menace is about to leap from the mist.
Fade to black.
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